Menzies’ book club: using a relational database to reconstruct the social networks of Robert Menzies
AuthorStone, Caitlin; Berryman, Jim
AffiliationMelbourne Students & Learning
Access StatusOpen Access
© 2014 The authors
The University of Melbourne Library holds the personal library of Sir Robert Gordon Menzies, prime minister of Australia from 1939 to 1941 and 1949 to 1966. The collection reflects a lifetime of acquiring books and comprises almost 4000 books (as well as magazines, photograph albums and ephemera) that belonged to Menzies. As well as reflecting the owner’s tastes and interests, the collection sheds light on Menzies’ extensive personal, social and personal networks. We demonstrate in this paper how is it possible to use a relational database to piece together an impression of Menzies’ intricate social world, based on the evidence of his books. Much of the value of the collection lies in the annotations and dedications inside the books. We have discovered that almost forty percent of the volumes bear inscriptions or signs of dedication ranging from signatures and brief notes to more personal dedications. These reveal the identity of the giver of the book and often its date of acquisition. A smaller number contain signs of previous ownership, suggesting they were donated, exchanged, or perhaps lent to Menzies (and never returned). Presents to Menzies from family members and friends are common. The collection also contains numerous books presented to Menzies by international dignitaries, not to mention unsolicited gifts from his admirers and constituents. The exchange of books was a form of ‘social networking’, and these inscriptions reveal a complex network of associations both within and outside the world of politics. This paper will focus on our efforts to map the connections between books, writers of inscriptions, events and organisations relevant to the life and times of Robert Menzies. Moving beyond the bibliographic approach, our project incorporates archival research and digital technologies to learn more about Menzies’ public and private self. Looking ahead, there is further scope for this project to be used as the basis of a detailed social network analysis. Personal libraries occupy an ambiguous position in traditional library and archival practice. The professional literature on the management and conservation of personal libraries is therefore limited. In disciplines such as history and literature, however, personal libraries have been used as sources of unique biographical evidence. We are not aware of a comparable project using digital technology to build a social and biographical profile of an individual, derived from their personal library. We hope the outcomes of this project will not be confined to the interests of Australian and political history. This new approach to understanding personal libraries will encourage others working in digital humanities to explore these unique collections held in a number of Australian academic and state libraries. Personal libraries offer great potential for digital applications in the humanities. In addition to network analyses, these collections provide opportunities for book digitisation and OCR technologies, as well as database design. This project will be of interest to librarians, archivists and curators, as well as researchers working in book history, digitisation, textual analysis and digital curation. It will also interest technologists, especially database designers and developers. The online resource resulting from this project, The Robert Menzies Collection: A Living Library, has been published as a work in progress: http://www.menziescollection.esrc.unimelb.edu.au.
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